Monday, September 9, 2013

Flee(t)ing Thoughts


As I never seem to tire of mentioning, my attraction to Zen practice is its simplicity, or more precisely, its lack of distracting frills and ornaments, and its directness.

Whether we're off the cushion chopping wood or interviewing a client, or on the cushion following the breath, sitting with a koan, or just sitting, our brains naturally churn out unbidden thoughts. A constant part of practice is dealing with them in order to be fully present.

In Opening the Hand of Thought, Kosho Uchiyama Roshi (successor to Homeless Kodo Sawaki) describes the process like this:

Briefly, our attitude in zazen is aiming at maintaining the posture of zazen with our flesh and bones, and with our mind letting go of thoughts.

What is letting go of thoughts? Well, when we think, we think of something. Thinking of something means grasping that something with thought. However, during zazen we open the hand of thought that is trying to grasp something, and simply refrain from grasping. This is letting go of thoughts.

When a thought of something does actually arise, as long as the thought does not grasp that something, nothing will be formed. For example, even if thought A (“a flower ") occurs, as long as it is not followed by thought B (“is beautiful"), no meaning such as AB (“a flower is beautiful") is formed. … So, even if thought A does occur, as long as the thought does not continue, A occurs prior to the formation of a meaningful sequence. It is not measurable in terms of meaning, and it will disappear as consciousness flows on.

Our encounter with thoughts during practice seems to fall into two categories: after daydreaming and before daydreaming.

The first happens when we have grasped a thought, chased it with others, and find ourselves in a daydream. Here we simply notice that our attention has wandered, let go of the thought, and return to being present. If it’s gentle, effortless and non-judgmental, the process of letting go doesn't itself become a distraction, as it can otherwise trigger its own train of thoughts.

The second happens when we become aware of a thought as it begins to take form, but before it takes hold.

Dealing with these nascent thoughts requires even less effort - just returning the attention to the matter at hand without, literally, giving them a second thought, allowing them to 'disappear as consciousness flows on.'

Of course there are times when we need to pay attention to thoughts as they arise. Making thoughts disappear while trying to write a list of things to buy at the store would be a little, er, off the mark.

The title of this post comes from the realization that opening the hand of thought is a skill that, perhaps because it's so easy, can be used wrongly. I've been catching myself allowing thoughts to disappear not because they distract me from being present, but because they're uncomfortable: generally thoughts that remind me I'm avoiding something. (Hopefully I'm just noticing this more, rather than doing it more.)

Either way, more practice required.


Related Post: Stage Fright

Photo © 2013 Marjon Hollander, with kind permission.


17 comments:

  1. True and very beautiful. Thank you, David.

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  2. Greetings David!

    I tried that practice for many years before finally coming to the recognition that it was only dealing with branches and never got to the root. It is certainly a good preliminary practice for developing calm abiding, or shamatha, but the seed of ignorance and its subsequent "defilements" is still present.

    Unless it is followed with insight (vipassana) practice, AKA "Inquiry", in which the illusion of the person, the self, is seen through, it may give one a good peaceful feeling, but will not lead to recognition of one's true nature.

    Blessings!

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    1. Hi Bob, thanks for your comment.

      I'm afraid I know next to nothing about vipassana. So much more to learn! I wonder if koan introspection could be considered the zen version of "inquiry".

      As for just sitting (shikantaza) not leading to recognition of one's true nature, being a layman, I'm not really qualified to comment, but I suspect some Soto people might disagree. :)

      Enjoying your work over at The Conscious Process!

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    2. Thanks David!

      As for the comparison of koan practice to inquiry, there is certainly some validity there, depending on how one approaches the koan work. Even still, from what I have noticed, more students than not still approach koans with the aim of getting something, some sort of break-through experience, transcendental glimpse, or qualitative change of state, which is actually the opposite of true Inquiry, and can even serve to strengthen one's self-delusion.

      As for shikantaza, like I said, it is a good and perhaps even necessary preparatory practice, without which one will not get very far with Inquiry, given the level of mental stability required for that effort to yield fruit. In and of itself, however, I am reminded of the story about trying to make a mirror by polishing bricks.

      Of course, Soto adherents will claim that assuming the posture is itself enlightenment, but then put them in a real-life crisis situation, and we will see how enlightened they are.

      In fact, no position amounts liberation. Liberation is recognition, and this recognition may arise independent of any particular method, scheme, meditation strategy, or so-called "spiritual" effort. It is not true, contrary to the Zen cliché, that Zazen will make one more "enlightenment-prone". Identification with this person who would get "enlightenment" is in fact a major impediment to real awakening.

      Of course, all of this is rather a simplistic analysis, and there is certainly much more that can be said one way or the other, but this is my experience thus far, after decades of experimentation, which may not necessarily apply to others.

      Blessings!

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    3. Bob - thanks for your detailed comment - much food for thought!

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  3. Interesting discussion David :) Yes, how frustrating that the mind naturally turns out unbidden thoughts - that mind mechanism does what it does. What can you say :) There's no stopping it. The key seems to be returning our awareness to the *Awareness* behind the thoughts, which allows the thoughts to flow through, as you mention. There's a saying in Zen, if I remember it right, to keep stepping back until you step back into what is *seeing* through the eyes. It is metaphorical of course. We just keep "stepping back" inwardly until we recognize that open aware spacious Presence that we are. I have found the question: who is looking through these eyes? to be most helpful in that regard.

    Using inquiry, however, as your previous commentor suggests, sometimes can lead to a kind of mind game of semantics with the question being "who is the one who is thinking?" The goal being to have you realize that there is no "me" who is thinking. But I haven't found this approach useful, as it still keeps me in my mind, going down the rabbit hole of thought.

    For me using "meditation" as a vehicle of becoming aware of the deep space of Silent Awareness within, going to that space *behind* thought and relaxing into that, without the mental gymnastics of inquiry, has been the most beneficial. Once this space of Silent Awareness is recognized as the Ground of Being, the questions don't matter, and neither does thinking :) It's just there. Thinking is just happening, but is not an obstacle.

    The most "effortless" way for me seems to be to follow the breath, all the way down to the lower dantien (just below the belly button) and back out again. This settles the mind mechanism as it gives it something to focus on. I have also found the use of a simple mantra helpful - like So Hum - useful. So on the in breath, Hum on the out breath. It too gives the mind a focus and relaxes the body, which opens the door to the space of deeper Awareness.

    Good luck! :)

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    1. Greetings, Mystic!

      Briefly, if you are involved in mental gymnastics, that is not true Inquiry. Many mistake efforts at intellectually trying to figure themselves out as Inquiry, when in fact it merely introspection. For example, there are many Zen koans, such as "Who is carrying this body around?", that approximate true Inquiry. It is not a mental riddle, but the inexperienced may initially approach it conceptually. If they persist, however, they may move beyond the discursive mind. If not, they will remain in the field of mental gymnastics, unless guided by a qualified teacher.

      Blessings!

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    2. Christine, thanks so much for your kind and thoughtful comment. For some years when I started practicing zen, I was pretty much making it up as I went along. I would rest my attention in the hara (I think that's the same as the lower dantien) and sit with "Who is asking this question?" I still rest my attention there but mostly practice shikantaza. I agree with you and Bob about mental gymnastics. An intellectual answer is nothing more than an intellectual answer.

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    3. Bob, I think I'm getting an inkling about what you mean by inquiry - I'll have to check it out.

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    4. Hi David!

      I elaborate a bit more on Inquiry here:

      http://theconsciousprocess.wordpress.com/2012/09/26/true-inquiry-2/

      Blessings!

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  4. David - Thanks for this post, which has generated some valuable comments, particularly those from Mystic Meandering. I would add only that often the practice of zazen clarifies my thoughts. Before leaving, they come clearly into focus. I touch on this briefly toward the end of my essay "Clear Seeing," which I posted today.

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    1. Thanks, Ben. Seeing thoughts more clearly seems to be a function of our not being enmeshed in them, which may explain why zazen has that effect. I like the analogy with different aspects of water for the five hindrances to clear seeing you described.

      I noticed that your comment name doesn't track back to your blog, so here it is: One Time, One Meeting, well worth many visits.

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  5. Whenever I hear about letting go of thought I can't help but recall reading an instructional art book written by Betty Edwards titled Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. She offers exercises that guide the reader to "shift" deliberate thought into a realm of some would call "the zone". As easy as it sounds to "not think" - It takes practice! But that's where creative flow and true peace if found... I'm sure in some way it's physically healing as well. (?)

    In any case David, as usual, you've given us lots to think on... Or not! ;)

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    1. Thanks, Bea. That's a book I've seen many times, always meant to read, and never did. Now I really have to seek out a copy and dig in!

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